In the Spotlight: Valeriu Tomescu on Training a Gold Medalist
CA: Can you give us a short description of how Constantina Dita developed as an athlete?
VT: Constantina started in her final year of high school to train for track & field and cross-country. Maybe that was one of the good things contributing to her ability to still be running so well at age 38.
Her first coach had the good sense to use an easy type of training [without] too much stress for a beginner, such as Constantina. She started proving the abilities to be a great runner.
She had already had three coaches, and I was her fourth; [I was] very young without experience, but I did have my bachelor’s degree in P.E., which I think proved to be an excellent asset for the coach I’ve become during the past eight years.
CA: Can you give us a synopsis of your development as a coach? How did you begin to coach Constantina?
VT: I started as a coach in the 1998–1999 school year, working for one year as a P.E. teacher at a middle school in Transylvania, but I was not too thrilled with it. We had very little equipment, and we had to improvise for a lot of the cross training and exercises I wanted the athletes to do. On top of that, it might be hard for an American to appreciate how difficult it was for the average Romanian family to even afford a pair of sports shoes for their children. I felt like I was sinking into something I couldn’t take—mediocrity.
At the end of my first year as a teacher, I decided to go into a training camp for myself, when I was trying to qualify for the national half-marathon championships. It was at that altitude camp in Pietra Arsa where I first met Constantina. She had been selected for the 1999 World Championships in Seville for the marathon and was there for training. I had no idea at the time that within six months we would be married!
The next year, when she failed to qualify for the Romanian team for the Sydney Olympics, she decided that I should take the responsibility for her training. Although I just had the one year of middle school coaching experience, Constantina took into account my educational background and the fact that I had been in training camps for the past few years with other athletes as a training partner.
So, starting with the fall of 2000, I became her coach, and I realized that I needed to start studying more to be able to make some progress with her training and racing. My luck … or maybe I should say our luck … was the fact that we came to the U.S., where you find access to information on every street corner (although you just need to figure [out] the streets!). I started reading about American training philosophies and exercise physiology, which are still my favorite reading topics.
I understood that I will never know enough, so that was a great motivation to learn, as well as understanding there are so many coaches out there better than me. I accepted it, and rather than be jealous of them, I think it is the right attitude for a coach to take regardless of how much experience he or she has. Although a lot of it was self-taught, I realized I needed a sounder background, so I went through the USTAF Coaching Education. I passed Level I this past winter and Level II this summer.
From this start, it took me about eight years to have an Olympic Gold medal in my “pocket,” along with five other medals in World Championships, and there probably are not too many coaches who can say that at the age of 32. Everything added up so well just for my athlete and me on August 17th. I still hope I will be able to [complete] my Master’s in exercise physiology.
CA: Constantina races well up to three marathons a year. How do you train for that?
VT: Well, that is always manageable if the base period is not rushed and is not interrupted by injuries. Running three marathons a year is tough at the elite level, because we understand that there is just one peak in an athlete’s racing year. So, we need to use the spring marathon as another step for the next marathon in our trainings and basically decide [in] which marathon we want to do our best. This is where strategy has a great importance in your periodization. I found that Constantina’s body is more likely to peak late summer/early fall. Considering that, [we] train for a fast marathon in [the] spring. Even if she would win that spring event, our projected peak might still be later in the year; otherwise, our year it would be done by May. For example, in 2005, she had a great race in London, setting a new national record of 2:22:50 to finish second behind Paula Radcliffe. Then, she came back in the autumn and broke that mark by over a minute in Chicago.
It’s a building process, and it’s experience. This is supported by lab tests, particularly blood work and lactate threshold. We don’t do [as] much VO2 Max testing as people might expect. I really don’t find the VO2 Max to be as important as VVO2Max (velocity). Overall, lactate threshold is the one that we can definitely use as a great monitoring of training intensities. If we respect the real, tested level of the athlete’s body and not just make assumptions by sensation, then we can avoid going wrong or exposing the athlete to the risk of injuries.
There are going to be three phases of our training in a year for those marathons. The three phases don’t stand alone. We use each past phase to monitor the training for the next phase and, thereby, [are] able to train at a higher level for that next marathon.
CA: Women and marathons—do you have theories on their training?
VT: Women and marathoning—there would be a great deal to discuss. I do believe that women are managing this distance better than guys, and we will still see a great deal of progress in women’s marathon levels, considering that they started running the distance much later than the men. [We are only talking about 30–35 years so far for the women, compared to 100 years for the men.]
As a coach, I think monitoring the iron levels, CPK and so forth can help train women and keep them on the right track. They have mood changes, and they sometimes get so into their training that they forget to recover. I think they are easier to deal with than men, able to take the pain better, capable of recovering better than men. Altogether they are stronger than men, they will [need] somebody that is educated enough to make their capabilities real. Maybe when I have the opportunity to begin coaching some men, I might adjust this opinion, but it is how I currently feel.
CA: Should women distance runners focus on track and cross country first?
VT: I believe men, as well as women, should concentrate on track and cross country first. It’s a natural way of building up continuity [consistency] with your trainings, rather than jumping to overly long races that will just cut short your potential career. Also, for younger people who run cross country, it seems to help with bone density, so I’d recommend to run on dirt and grass hills without putting too much stress on a young athlete’s growing bones. So, yes, I believe starting with track and especially cross country would have a great impact in your future marathoning career.
CA: Tell us about her races in Chicago.
VT: Chicago is a great course for her style marathoner, a pretty flat course with generally very wide streets. This does help by not having the visual pressure of narrow streets where you feel that environment somehow pressing in on you, on your brain. It is a psychosomatic feeling, running openly like that, as if you have more oxygen; mentally or psychologically, that is a great help.
Chicago came always for her as the peak race of the year, and that’s why she has competed excellently there every time. In 2004, she came from Athens where she finished 20th, struggling to finish the race in extreme hot conditions.
But, basically, the poor run there and not being able to compete kept her from consuming too much energy, so two months later she got a big reward: winning the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon. What happened after that was that almost every year she had to run the World Half-Marathon (or World Road Race Championship) just before Chicago, particularly the year when she and Lornah [Kiplagat] both broke the 20K World Record. She came in with TOO much confidence, and she kind of blew her race in big style, but still manages top five.
Mentally, Constantina is a very strong athlete, but probably with more respect to her physical abilities, she already could have run below 2:20 a couple of times in London or Chicago. She really feared and didn’t trust a strategy of negative splits. Fortunately, she did try such a tactic at least once in her career, and we all saw that it paid off with the Olympic Gold medal in Beijing.
CA: Tell us about the tactics in Beijing. How did she feel? Why did it work?
VT: The first thing I was concerned about this summer was what every coach must target, having her 100% healthy at the starting line. Considering the scare that everybody had with the pollution and hot/humid weather [in Beijing], everybody was training more for a tactical race rather than a fast race. That’s what we were doing, going over every single day within the final three weeks before the race [to plan] how she should approach it. Every move that she would do had to be very pace controlled, without any surges, and it had to be done gradually. The first half we expected to be slow, but the time in the actual race was too slow. We had covered that aspect, too...she had no chance for a medal if she would wait until after the halfway [point] on a slow pace due to her relative lack of speed at the finish.
So, as you saw, she pulled away but very gradually, only a few seconds for every kilometer. As it happened, the trap was that nobody would really want to follow her, because most of her competitors who had already raced her many times consider her as a front runner who is doing that from the beginning or too early in the race. Well, this time was not too early. It was already after [the] halfway [point], a very important detail that, really, common sense should have revealed to the other competitors.
So, finally after years and years of running, after about 30 marathons, Constantina finally runs a negative split marathon and she gets it right, a Gold medal in the Olympics against a field that only the London Marathon is able to put together. We are both extremely respectful of the huge names that were in that field…Catherine [Ndereba], Paula [Radcliffe], [Gete] Wami , the Japanese and Chinese women, and so on…and that’s why this medal is even more valuable in our memories. On that day, we were able to be the best from the best field in the world.
Physiologically, for Beijing, I made sure that her body would have plenty of glycogen reserves, that her glucose levels would not be dropping during her efforts, and that her body temperature would not rise at a level of 39.5 degrees Celsius. With this, I wanted [her to] do her own race and wait for the other’s race tactics.
She was supposed to stay with the group until 30km, but with the slow pace in the first 20km and the great weather conditions, she had to switch the plan. At the start line, after seeing and feeling the conditions and not letting her warm up too much and without too much stretching (which avoided consuming too much energy and proved to be an excellent call), we talked for the last time. We decided that she should try to make her move halfway, and not wait until 30km. She did this with great style and perfect timing. She also proved that age is not the limit that many of us feared so many times.
CA: What can women run at the marathon? Is there a perfect training method for women distance runners?
VT: Well, women have already proven to be able to run 2:15 (Paula [Radcliffe]). I believe that we’ll see more women approaching that level [with] maybe one getting close to 2:13 minutes in the next five years, and many will get around 2:20–2:19.
As for a training method being perfect, I would say there is no such thing. There are too many other factors to run the perfect race to just [rely on one’s] training. When I see books about the “secrets of marathoning” or “secrets of training,” I would say loud and clear: “THERE ARE NO SECRETS!” and apologize for disappointing some people.
It is exercise physiology that will make a huge difference in an athlete’s training strategy and racing tactics. It will help to individualize the training and tailor it to your athlete’s capabilities.
CA: What would you tell U.S. college-age women, who are [already] running 10ks and 5ks, about the marathon?
VT: I would say not to rush into running a marathon. Use those 5k, 10k races as a great build-up to run a great couple of half-marathons. Only after that, consider running a marathon if you want to be a competitive athlete.
Also, try to get a coach who respects science and avoid those who will only try to make you run his workouts from when he was a very good runner in his or her time. That’s a huge red flag, because we are not going to see individualization occur, and we are not going to see progress either. Avoid coaches who will have you train with groups of athletes that are from 800m to marathon, [where] you have to do the same workouts just because your coach says so. Believe me, I have seen these types of coaches!
CA: Tell us about how to construct a training program, using your beliefs for a) women hoping to break three hours, b) women hoping to run 2:50, c) women hoping to become national class.
VT: This is a great question, but I would have to start by asking back: How fast did that runner run before trying to break the 3 hours and so forth?
For a 3:00 goal, I would assume that person needs to be training at least once a day, 5–7 days a week. The approach should be having enough time to train and not expect miracles in three months. Ideally, all the training needs to be planned after determining your lactate threshold, weight, and speed for 5k/10k /half-marathon. Only after that can we try to predict a marathon time at 3:00, 2:50 or national class. The great part of this is you will need more than 3–4 years to became a national class runner, depending on your consistency over time to have a great few years of base on which to improve. So, 3–4 years after the high school and then college background should be plenty to stay safe and be ready to improve to national class.
CA: How important is coaching to an adult athlete?
VT: Coaching an adult athlete is important as long as you find the right adult, or make that adult become part of a great community [in] a way [where] he can become a great role model for kids, who eventually will turn to running or other sports.
CA: What is Constantina’s typical training week? Her early season? Her preparation for a marathon?
VT: Well, to take a sample week, let’s look at the early season in preparation for a marathon. We start with a gradual build-up of the workload, mainly more mileage and keep building on it. The first week will have one workout a day. For example:
Monday 20km ([at a pace of] around 1 h, 26 min)
Tuesday 20km (about the same)
Thursday 28km ([at] around 2h)
Friday 28km (total with two sessions)
Morning: Easy 6km warm-up, with drills 2 series x 3 drills
10x100m strides with [a] jog in between
20x150m hills reps with [a] jog in between
Cool down about 6km
Afternoon: Easy run 8km to help with recovery after the morning session
Saturday 34 km (total with two sessions)
Morning: Fartlek 20km in about 76 minutes, with 3km warm-up and 3km cool down that leads to 26km
Afternoon: Easy 8km jog [at] about 42 minutes
Sunday Morning: 35km run ([at]around 2h, 34 min)
Afternoon: No training. Recovery with massage, [via a] subaqual shower
This first week would therefore be about 185km, and we would build to the next three weeks [to] about 200km, 215km, and 185km. This would make the monthly total about 780 km, and we never exceed 810km.